In 2015, Australia's leading dancehall and reggae producer Jake 'Mista' Savona set out to unite the musical cultures of Cuba and Jamaica, giving birth to the truly unique project Havana Meets Kingston.
In a world first, Jake brought together both established and contemporary musicians from the two countries for a one-of-a-kind recording session.
Last year the first of the Havana Meets Kingston albums was released and history was made. “The bulk of it was recorded in Havana with everyone playing live,” Jake explains.
“Then I took everything we recorded and travelled a bit further in Cuba and back to Jamaica to do the final overdubs. It's been very much a journey and an album that's come together, but the core of it was very much done with all the musicians from both countries together and that's what makes it authentic and captures the magic of that interaction.”
"I didn't want it to just be a tribute to yesteryear. It's very much a celebration of old and new, there's a lot of fresh new sounds on the record and also the album's a real mix of legendary, famous musicians."
After the overthrow of the Batista government by Fidel Castro and his socialist forces in 1959, Cuba became the target of strict embargoes by the US that restricted imports and exports as well as the movement of Cuban people in and out of the country.
“What happened when Cuba took back its independence and became a socialist conclave [is] America reacted against that and there were all kinds of embargoes and things that prevented Cubans from travelling.
“It made it very difficult for people to go in or out of Cuba and that slowed down the possible cultural and musical exchanges that could have kept happening, that were happening back in the day.
“Then on top of that they're both very poor countries and they have such powerful music scenes, so they're very independent and self-contained in a way; they didn't really need to look outside themselves for inspiration.”
The project made its live debut last year as a scaled-down version of the group featuring Solis and Jamaican vocalist Randy Valentine, dubbed Havana Meets Kingston Sound System. “What made the show amazing was having Solis and Randy both on stage together,” Jake says.
“Solis is from Havana in Cuba and it was his first time travelling outside Cuba into the West, which in itself was an incredible thing for everyone, because he has a very raw, brilliant, authentic kind of sound that you never hear in Australia, so people were blown away by that.
Click here to read our 2017 Q&A with Mista Savona discussing the Havana Meets Kingston project.
“Then Randy is such an amazing vocalist, rapper, singer, everything and the two of them had never actually met, even though they've got this great song together 'Carnival'. Their chemistry on stage and off stage was just brilliant and the shows went down really well.”
This year Jake is bringing the full 15-piece band that took part in the original recording sessions for a tour that includes a special performance at WOMADelaide.
“The album actually features over 61 musicians, so it's quite a massive project but pretty much across the whole track we had a core band, which included Sly & Robbie and it included Rolando Luna from Buena Vista Social Club, it included Yaroldi and Oliver Valdes – the two brilliant Cuban percussionists who play across the record.
"So they're all coming out to Australia and they're all very famous in different ways for different projects.”
Although Jamaica and Cuba are geographically close, politically and culturally they are worlds apart. Jake said that despite the difference between the countries, the musicians found a common ground through music.
“There's a real language barrier there in terms of the fact that the Cubans don't speak English and the Jamaicans don't speak Spanish, but musically the language is the same so it's going to be a really unique and exciting show in the world,” he says.
“I actually feel confident this could be one of the best bands in the world, honestly; they're such amazing musicians and this is a very new and exciting project so it's something different and we're all excited about that.”
Havana Meets Kingston is not just a musical exchange, it is also an intergenerational exchange between modern Cuban and Jamaican artists and their predecessors.
Jake says the live shows are as much about the past as they are about the present and future. “That was really important with this project,” he says.
“I didn't want it to just be a tribute to yesteryear. It's very much a celebration of old and new, there's a lot of fresh new sounds on the record and also the album's a real mix of legendary, famous musicians like Ernest Ranglin and Changuito as well as the new talent. It's nice to have a mix of very raw, new talent and these older legends.
“Because there are 15 musicians and they all represent different stages and eras of Cuban and Jamaican music, we're going to represent all these different stars as well of course playing all the music from the record.
"It's going to be a high-power, high-energy show but also with lots of interludes where we focus on a few of the Cuban musicians then back to Sly & Robbie on bass and drums. It's going to be a very dynamic show; people are going to love it.”
During the Obama Administration, diplomatic tensions between the US and Cuba eased somewhat with Obama being the first sitting US President to visit the island nation since 1928, and the lifting of business and travel bans that had been in place for over half a century.
However, in November last year the Trump Administration 'cancelled' the deals and reinstated the restrictions. Though American-Cuban relations had little impact on the Havana Meets Kingston project, Jake says the brief window of political discourse helped stimulate interest in Cuban culture and music.
“It means more people talk about Cuba and more people are interested in Cuba, so that's very exciting for the project because there's a lot of interest in Cuba and people are wanting to hear contemporary Cuban music as well as all this beautiful, old music.”
With the first Havana Meets Kingston album released last year in November, Jake says audiences can expect more from the group this year in the form of another album as well as a feature documentary film about the band.
“When we were in Cuba, in those ten days where we recorded the bulk of the album, we actually recorded enough material for two or three records,” Jake says.
“So there's another equally brilliant, equally exciting record that we'll release later this year and there's also the documentary the filmmakers are working on at the moment, so we're hoping album two and the film will be released at the same time later this year.”
Havana Meets Kingston Tour DatesThu 8 Mar - The Tivoli Theatre (Brisbane)
Sun 11 Mar - WOMADelaide
Wed 14 Mar - Enmore Theatre (Sydney)
Thu 15 Mar - Forum Theatre (Melbourne)